Politics & Policy

Brushes through India

Residents of Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat buy tomatoes at a roadside market, 2015. (Photo: Amit Dave/Reuters)
A show for the senses

Editor’s Note: Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger is now available, here. The book has six chapters, and we are running a piece from each of them. The below piece is from the third chapter, “Abroad.” It was published in our March 10, 2008, issue.

‘What’s playing in India?” asked a friend of mine, before I took off. Oh, nothing in particular: just India itself, for two weeks of exploration. My friends and I begin in Bombay, or, as we’re all supposed to say now, “Mumbai.” I ask a local lady about this; she is a sharp and savvy schoolteacher. She says that “Mumbai” has been forced on everyone by a certain political crowd; she prefers, when speaking English, to say “Bombay” — and why not?

Bombay is a very, very populous city in this very, very populous country. People are everywhere, tucked into every nook and cranny. If traffic is moving — which is a very big if — they fly about on motorcycles, without helmets. There are children on those bikes, too, carefree, as well as helmet-free. You hear that India is a heavily regulated country. Yes, but it’s interesting what they choose to regulate, and what not.

Here’s a little political-economic note: I buy a packet of cracker-like things, and it says, “Less taxes = more biscuits.” Oh, lower taxes mean a lot of good things, my friends.

Before I came here, several people who know the country told me one thing, independently. They said, “You’ve heard about the burgeoning middle class, and it is true. But bear in mind that India is still a very poor country — it may shock you.” Poverty is a given, yes. The place is not all tech com­panies and call centers, to put it mildly. And animal transportation — camel-drawn carts, etc. — is utterly routine.

Children beg, saying “Hello, hello,” while making eating gestures with their fingers. The adult beggars I see are very few: young mothers with infants; and old, wretched men. I see no able-bodied men beg — as I do where I live, in Manhattan, every day.

A morning walk in Bharuch — State of Gujarat — is enjoyable and instructive. Through the neighborhoods come vendors with handcarts. They sell fruit, or vegetables, or milk. They call out the names of their products as they go, leather-lunged. It occurs to me that this is an anti-Wal-Marter’s dream. There is no one-stop shopping. Everyone pushes his own tiny line, earning pennies.

Girls are lovely in their saris. This is true of richer ones and poorer ones, spiffier ones and scruffier. Are girls here more attractive than elsewhere? You may think so; it’s more likely that they’re attractive because they’re so feminine. They seem to enjoy being female, and carry themselves that way. They sort of sashay along. I doubt softball here is much good.

Generally speaking, men are almost as style-conscious as women. You might even say they are vain, matching their clothes, frequently combing their hair, Fonzie-style. Whether they have money or not, they want to cut a figure.

Down by the river in Bharuch, I see women washing clothes in mud pools, beating them with a paddle. I’m surprised that this is still going on. And I think of my Indian-American friends back home: super-educated, super-affluent, many of them. How many generations removed are they from this clothes-paddling? Not many. Human life can move fast. (In both directions?)

This country is famous for smells — good and bad — and I get plenty of whiffs on my walk. One whiff I get is of incense: and it flashes me back to boarding school. The kids used to burn incense, for two reasons: It was cool, because New Age; and they wanted to cover up the smell of their pot.

You hear that India is a polluted country, and I’m afraid it’s so. You perhaps don’t know pollution until you know Indian pollution, or Third World pollution in general. And once you experience it, you don’t want to hear a word from an American environmentalist, about the American environment, again. Kyoto my . . .

As I walk about Bharuch, my mind is a jumble of clichés. “Life and death are particularly stark in India. Everything is in bold relief.” True. There is tremendous vibrancy, but also the odd dog carcass, just off the street. Life and death fill eyes, ears, and nostrils. “In India, the rich and poor live in very close proximity.” True, so true. And then there are the famous contra­dictions: “India is alluring and repugnant, irresistible and abominable.” True, true.

Everywhere, in villages, towns, and cities, you share the streets with animals. There are both Democrats and Republi­cans, both donkeys and elephants (al­though the former greatly outnumber the latter — just as at American universities). There are goats, monkeys, camels, boars, buffalo. In Bharuch, my hosts’ garden is stuffed with peacocks. And, throughout India, it’s a joy to see parrots: which are not meant only for the cages of little old ladies.

Cows, of course, are ubiquitous. Here, they all die of old age. An Indian-American friend tells me a funny story: Years ago, an Indian of her acquaintance came to America. He started eating hamburgers and steaks with abandon. Asked to explain himself, he said, “I figure only Indian cows are sacred.” One of the most charming rationalizations I have ever heard.

It’s a pleasure to hear Indian English, which is often musi­cal. And it can be quite old-fashioned, even King Jamesian: Our guide in Jodhpur (home of the pants) says, “This maharajah had no male issue.” I also like a sign, at the approach of a toll booth: “Dead Slow.”

Even if you know the language, you may not. Return to Bombay with me, for a moment: I’m sitting in a restaurant with some old friends and new acquaintances — locals. In the course of the meal, I ask, “Does this restaurant seek out tourists, or does it exist mainly for natives?” Silence — unusual, for our talky group. Finally, a lady says, “What do you mean by ‘natives’?” Uh-oh. I say, “Well, you know — ‘natives.’ People born here, from here.” More si­lence. I then say, “Is the word pejorative here?” Not in standard English, but here, yes: It was so under the British.

A foreign culture, even an accessible one, can be a minefield.

Here’s something that takes some getting used to: the presence of the swastika, everywhere. It is a venerable Hindu symbol, twisted by the Nazis. You see it on the thresholds of homes. And, in Jaisalmer, I see the Hotel Swastika. I think, “Surely this must repel European tourists.” I then have a darker thought: “Maybe it attracts some?”

You’ll want a word on Indian toilets (won’t you?). Some of them are terrifying — you’ll hold it till kingdom come. Others of them are benign, even inviting. There is a great variety. An Udai­pur restaurant presents two doors: One says “Indian Toilet,” the other says “Western Toilet.” You know the expression “When in Rome . . .”? I’m afraid I do not — do as the Romans.

This is a musical country, as you know, and you hear music everywhere: from TVs and radios, sure, but also from loudspeakers on trucks. And at marriage celebrations, which go on constantly, in this marriage-loving country. Oddly, I hear “Frère Jacques” — three times, in three separate Indian cities. Both played and sung. The singers need a little help with pronunciation.

And the variety of cellphone rings is dizzying, as it is the world over. Our guide in Udaipur has a phone that plays “Jingle Bells.” Does he know it’s a Christmas carol? He does now. And, in the little Gujarati village of Dantali, a cellphone breaks the still of the evening. What is it playing? I’ll tell you, but first, a story.

Some months back, Paul Johnson, the British writer, wrote about Arthur Hugh Clough, the British poet who lived from 1819 to 1861. He wrote one poem that stuck: “Say not the struggle naught availeth.” Johnson remembered hearing a car salesman in Perth recite this poem. And he, Johnson, thought, “That’s fame.”

Well, on this quiet Dantali evening, the cellphone plays the theme to Love Story, by Francis Lai (taken to great popular heights by Henry Mancini). And the thought immediately comes to me: “That’s fame.”

We have talked of variety, and what there’s really a variety of is people. A tremendous variety of them. Seldom will you see a collection of people so diverse. You see men who look like they stepped out of antiquity: simple wrap, walking staff, painted face, wizened. And they’re waiting for the same bus as people who look like Wall Streeters. Somewhere in Rajasthan, I see women with hoops through their noses carrying huge bundles of sticks on their heads. I think: “This is foreign travel — you ain’t looking at Big Ben.”

Race is a touchy subject here, maybe touchier than in most other places. In the Hindustan Times, I see brides advertised. Most of the ads say “fair and slim.” I don’t see any women advertised as dark and chunky. And the ads go on to give height and weight, as well as academic credentials (“MBA!”) and other data. Talk about a meat market — although most of these ladies are advertised as vegetarian.

Great as the temples, palaces, forts, and other sites in India may be, most valuable are encounters with people. I could tell a hundred stories. Here’s one:

One of my hosts in Bharuch is a dis­tinguished intellectual — an educator and a novelist. He studied at Washington University (St. Louis) in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He ran out of money, and was on the point of leaving. But an American family — just middle-class, in his description — took him in. They expected nothing in return. The man marvels at their generosity, and at their egalitarian spirit: “Here they were, sharing a bathroom and a kitchen and everything with an Indian boy — just as though it was nothing.”

Encounters with children are partic­ularly delightful. There are masses and masses of them, everywhere. Front and center. Often they are in school uniforms, and shiny as pennies. No matter how filthy their surroundings — and they can be vile — these children are immaculate. And, as a rule, open, curious, fun-loving, and just plain loving. These kids have nothing, many of them. And yet they seem happier and better adjusted than our kids — in America.

I’ll give you just one favorite kid story: We’re in Gundi, another Gujarati village, like Dantali. Children are massed in a square. Seeing me, they see an opportunity to try out their English. They want to count to ten, and I test them. They know the numbers, well enough; but they’re a little shaky on the order.

One boy specializes in the number seven. He likes to call out “Seven!” doggedly. I hold up six fingers: “Seven!” he exclaims. I have to shake my head. But then I hold up another finger, and it’s his moment in the sun.

Not every child is in school, of course. The beggars aside, many kids work: Child labor is unshocking here, part of the furniture. Near the city of Bikaner, a boy checks the air in our tires. I think he’s about ten — hard to tell, for in this country the kids, slight, look younger than they are.

And the adults? Like the children, they seem happy, content — amazingly so. A companion of mine comments, “There is no tension on faces.” People smile, even beam. And, from a material point of view, they have nothing to beam about. Every day, I walk by people in New York who scowl, frown, sneer. And they have everything, by comparison. You hear that hap­piness is a state of mind. That may be a Hallmark sentiment — but not less true for that.

It goes without saying that Indians, being people, have their complaints. In Jaisalmer, I meet a group of young men who hawk products and services to tour­ists. They speak decent English, and have a tremendous curiosity about the world. Their faces shine, alive. One young man asks me about Area 51: What do I know about it? Not much, I have to tell him. I’m not sure he believes me — probably thinks I’m in on some conspiracy.

Another man in the group tells me about the obstacles they all face. If these obstacles had a name, it would be corruption. India is getting better, the man says — liberalizing. But fast enough and broadly enough? He and his friends do everything right, the man says: take the right classes, pass the right exams. But there comes a time to grease palms — and, being poor, they have no grease. So they feel stuck, stifled — denied the right to pursue their dreams and destinies.

What a waste.

Anyway, when they finish, I say, “Thank you. You have given me quite an education.” They protest, “You’re a lot more educated than we are.” I say I’m not so sure. Then one young man — the Area 51 fellow — says, “You’re more experienced.” “That’s right,” I say. “I’ve had more experience, more opportunities. I was lucky to be born where I was.” They agree enthusiastically.

But I am also lucky to have come here, and met them, and India.

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